Ways of reading

Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak...

I’ve recently finished reading the seminal art history and visual culture book Ways of Seeing by John Berger. For five years it’s sat on a shelf with a bookmark at page nine and although I’ve picked it up many times I’ve always failed to read any further. Then a couple of weeks ago something clicked and I read the book from cover to cover. I’m glad it did because had I not I would have missed this:

We are now so accustomed to being addressed by [publicity] images that we scarcely notice their total impact.

and this:

Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society.

and this:

The act of acquiring has taken the place of all other actions, the sense of having has obliterated all other senses.

When I picked up the book this last time round I knew what the problem had been all along: until recently I don’t think I’d ever heard John Berger speak and until I imagined him reading the text it didn’t come alive. For one thing the fact the book is typeset in a heavy weight of the Univers font means it’s not the easiest to read but it seems to fit with John Berger’s narrative voice.

The book is based on the four-part BBC series of the same name originally broadcast in 1972 and shown again last year on BBC Four (you’ll find most of it on YouTube). A friend recommend I watch it when I was researching colour and having done so I gave the book another go. I read it so quickly it got me thinking about other books I’ve taken time to get into and I realise it’s a recurring theme.

I found the style of The God Delusion mildly irritating until I remembered that’s just how Richard Dawkins comes across in person, but in real life he has humour and humility that you need to take back to the book. And I remember reading The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg which is a fascinating biography of our language which makes far more sense if you read it like it’s an episode of In Our Time.

The amusing thing for me is that having made the link between how I read and how narrators talk there’s a subtle clue to all this in the very first words of Ways of Seeing which appear, unusually, on the front cover. Had I thought about them more closely I might just have finished it sooner:

Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.

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